Paraguay’s first trip to the World Cup quarterfinals is down to luck, according to the team’s coach.
The South Americans battled Japan for 120 scoreless minutes in Pretoria yesterday before advancing to the last eight 5-3 in a penalty shootout. They’d failed to move beyond the last 16 in seven previous World Cup appearances.
“We were lucky in the penalty shootout and that made the difference,” said coach Gerardo Martino, who burst into tears after substitute Oscar Cardozo struck the winning penalty at Loftus Versfeld stadium.
With both countries seeking a first quarterfinal appearance at soccer’s four-yearly championship, the teams took few risks in the round-of-16 matchup. The Japanese sat deep and allowed their opponents to have 58 percent of the possession.
“We didn’t play well this time because of the tension perhaps,” said Martino, an Argentine who guided Paraguay to third place in South America’s World Cup qualifying group.
The coach said his team may have also benefited from a favorable draw. Japan is ranked 14 places below Paraguay, which is 31st in governing body FIFA’s list.
“All the teams deserve our respect but it’s not the same facing France in 1998, Germany in 2002, and Japan today,” Martino added. France and Germany went on to reach the final in those years after getting past Paraguay in the last 16.
The Paraguayans had the best of the 12 shots on target yesterday.
Lucas Barrios forced Ejii Kawashimi to save with his legs after 20 minutes and Roque Santa Cruz dragged his left-foot shot wide 10 minutes later after a failed clearance.
Japan’s best chance came when Daisuke Matsui’s shot from 30 yards rattled the crossbar.
“It’s very difficult to narrow down to one reason why we didn’t score,” Japan coach Takeshi Okada told reporters. “We are not a team which can score many goals basically and we should have taken the opportunities when they arose.”
After the game finished 0-0 at the end of regulation, the stalemate continued in the 30 minutes of extra time, setting the stage for the 2010 World Cup’s first penalty shootout.
With Paraguay leading 3-2, Yuichi Komano’s shot bounced off the crossbar and over. The next two spot kicks were successful, before Cardozo strolled up and stroked the ball into the bottom corner to send his team through.
“He asked to be the fifth one then he scored the way he did,” said Martino, whose team will play Spain for a spot in the semifinals on July 3 in Johannesburg. “If you have a player who has the guts to play tough you take him.”
Paraguay’s players dedicated the victory to absent teammate Salvador Cabanas, who is recovering after being shot in the head in January while in a Mexican bar.
“He’s always with us,” said Paraguay forward Edgar Benitez. “He gave us a boost.”
Okada said he hasn’t decided whether he will resign as Japan coach.
Goalkeeper Kawashima stopped to speak with reporters as Komano wept on his way to the team bus.
“We are very disappointed that we lost but we showed that the Japanese team can play much better” than before, he said. “We lost on penalties, not on goals.”